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Diversity in the Physical Sciences

The division is committed to solving the persistent problem of underrepresentation within physical sciences and mathematics in the U.S. Our efforts to address the issue span the path to a professional career - from training teachers to better prepare future university students to attracting and retaining a diverse faculty. Here are some of the people who have been recognized for their work to include the widest range of talent in these fields.

2012 Diversity Awards recognize efforts to broaden participation in math and science 

Every year about 150 of high school students from schools throughout San Diego County and Tijuana come to UC San Diego to hear an internationally recognized scientist or mathematician talk about their work and get a taste of the intellectual life of a university. Working behind the scenes of this event, the Kyoto Prize Symposium given by the basic sciences laureate each year, is Bruce Arnold, director of UC San Diego’s diagnostics, testing and placement program for mathematics.

Bruce ArnoldEvery week, more than 200 students from primary grades through high school come to campus to explore mathematics with university mathematicians. Arnold brought this program, the San Diego Math Circle, to campus in 2003 with just six students. Now he has proposed an expansion into the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego to reach students without a way to travel to campus.

For these and other outreach programs, including a statistics competition for high school students that he created, a computer security tournament that he helps to coordinate, and his leadership in a regional consortium of colleges and universities that considers which mathematics should be taught and how, Arnold was recognized with the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs’ Diversity Award at a ceremony held February 13.

When COMSATS, a inter-governmental organization that promotes socio-economic development through science and technology, convened a panel to discuss how to involve more women from southern nations, they called Robina Shaheen, a project scientist here at UC San Diego. She had a wealth of experience to offer. From Pakistan, Shaheen has earned advanced degrees in physical chemistry and has worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency, focusing on clean, safe water supplies for developing nations.

Robina ShaheenHere at UC San Diego, Shaheen’s contributions have been more personal. While developing new methods of analyzing traces of ancient atmospheres locked in rocks from Earth and elsewhere, like Mars, Shaheen has worked with many undergraduates, often members of groups who remain underrepresented in science, making sure that they know of the wealth of opportunities available to them, encouraging them to set their sights high, pursue challenging projects and apply to top programs for graduate work. And they’ve succeeded in winning awards for their undergraduate research and are thriving in their graduate studies.

Shaheen views the achievements of these students as a tribute to her mother who has encouraged her from the very beginning of her own successful career. For these contributions to the scientific community on campus and beyond, Shaheen received a campus-wide Diversity Award. 

Voices for Diversity

Mark Thiemens, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences, has advocated the promotion of underrepresented minorities and women in science and technology for 30 years. He has helped recruit women in all three departments within the division and has mentored undergraduate students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, often transforming them from quiet, hesitant students to confident researchers.

Our interns are out there
in neighborhoods where
many people have
never gone to college.

Study in the physical sciences can lead to very good jobs, Thiemens points out. But too many students shy away from the majors. “Some think they’ve never been good at science or math, but they weren’t taught well,” Thiemens says. That’s why the division started the Science and Mathematics Initiative, which trains math and science teachers and sends them to schools that serve large populations of traditionally underrepresented students.

Thiemens also founded the interdisciplinary Environmental Systems Program, which teaches undergraduates to apply scientific evidence to societal decision-making and sends interns into the community in programs that extend to the Mexican border.


Astrophysicist Alison Coil, an assistant professor in the physics department, studies how stellar winds might shut off star formation and how dark matter influences the evolution of galaxies. Like other questions in physics, these are challenging.

“You want to have everybody who is smart and bright working on the problems,” she says. “If you leave out women, you’re missing half the people who might have made a contribution.”

Yet women drop out at every step along the way. “It’s discouraging to see it happen,” Coil says. The transitions into graduate school, and from there to a professional job, are critical points.

You want to have everybody
who is smart and bright
working on these problems.

To help, Coil has gathered women graduate students and postdocs in the physics department. They meet regularly to talk among themselves and with a regular roster of guests about how to successfully navigate a career path. Topics have included how to introduce yourself, choose a mentor, and negotiate. The goal is to instill confidence.

Sometimes they discuss gender issues specifically, but those are not the primary focus of the group, Coil says. “I try not to harp on this. I don’t want them to become overly sensitive,” just aware of biases that are rarely overt and thoughtful about how best to respond. “Be aware of what’s in you,” she tells them. “Reach for that to respond to difficulties.”


“The labor force needs all kinds of people in the physical sciences,” says mathematics professor Jim Lin. “A bunch of us have been supporting these students for 20 years.”

Lin identified critical points in the graduate program in mathematics where students tend to drop out – qualifying exams and advancement to candidacy – and developed a program to help. He asked students who had successfully cleared the hurdles to write detailed accounts of what you need to know to succeed and shares these with all incoming students. And he set up summer prep sessions to help new students prepare for the tests. This is all described in the online Math Graduate Handbook.

It’s rewarding when you
get to know these students
on a personal level
and you see their success.

“This isn’t about algebra, really,” Lin says. “The hidden purpose was to help incoming students make friends and build a community. Most students drop out not for their lack of ability, but for their isolation.”

The orientation helps all students, the faculty have found. With guidance, they pass exams earlier, identify projects and mentors sooner, and complete the degree quickly.

Lin has worked toward improving the pool of applicants and ensuring that promising UC San Diego undergraduates aren’t overlooked when they apply to other programs. Each winter the department exchanges names of students who are members of underrepresented groups who have done well with 10 other programs. That also allows his department to encourage more people to consider coming here for graduate work.

He also landed a Tensor grant from the Mathematical Association of America, which supports programs designed to strengthen achievement by underrepresented minorities in mathematics.

As the acting provost of Muir College, Lin organized the Teaching Diversity conference, a daylong program meant to share programs that help promote access and foster success developed for disciplines across campus.


Darcy Barron always liked science – astronomy in particular – but didn’t really know how to become an astronomer until her sister’s roommate’s father, a professor, told her about a research program for undergraduate students.

I thought you had to be
incredibly lucky to
become an astronomer,
but there’s a clear path.

“I didn’t know that was a possibility, a career course. I though you had to be incredibly lucky, but no,” she says now. “There’s a clear path, and this is how you follow it.”

Now a graduate student here, Barron spent part of last summer showing others that path. As a mentor in UC San Diego’s STARS program, she met regularly with several students in applied mathematics.

Participants in the program engage in research and seminars on preparing for the GRE, picking and applying to graduate schools, and writing. All of the students write their final reports in the form of an application for a National Science Foundation’s graduate fellowship – a good head start on gaining support for their study and work.

“I got to hang out with a diverse group,” Barron says, including students who were already parents and whose own parents didn’t support their decision to remain in school. “I think these programs really help,” she said, noting that the programs offer a stipend. “You can do this instead of finding a summer job that is unrelated to your plans.”


Jeff Rances, who coordinates graduate admissions for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has worked to include everyone who might succeed in the program.

We want to make sure that
people who deserve
a good shot at
a career in science
get one.

“We want to be sure that people who deserve a good shot at a career in science get one,” he says. And once they arrive, he wants them to feel like they belong.

He contacts individual students at conferences and fairs. With the help of the Office of Graduate Studies, and Christopher Murphy in particular, he and the faculty have been able to hand out waivers of application fees on the spot, to encourage students who might have hesitated based on cost to apply.

Once they do, he works hard to send out offers as soon as he can. “We start in December. We want to be one of the first programs people hear from,” Rances says.

Acceptances are a beginning for the students and Rances. He helps organize activities like coffee sessions, BBQs and volleyball tournaments for all graduate students.

“It’s not specific to underrepresented minorities,” he says. “If we concentrate on building a better community, students will have a stronger sense of belonging.”


“I study low-mass stars. Of the 100 billion within our galaxy, I can only closely observe a small subset,” says astronomer Adam Burgasser. “You take every step you can to make that subset representative, to make your view of the universe accurate. If your selection is biased, you blind yourself to some of the important possibilities. Similarly, if we exclude groups of people from astronomy, we’re losing the insights they would have contributed. We’re blinding ourselves.”

It’s an issue of social justice.
Physics is a beautiful field.
If there are barriers for anyone,
it’s wrong.

Scientists don’t purposefully discriminate, Burgasser says, but may have inadvertant biases that are contributing to the unequal participation of women and underrepresented minorities in physics and other scientific fields.

Bugasser, white and male, has long worked to rectify this and currently chairs his department’s diversity committee. He often attends conferences on the issue, one of the few places in which he is a minority. That gives him a glimpse of what students can experience as they enter the field. “When we’re not visibly part of the group, it can make us feel like we don’t belong,” he says.

“We have a hard time encouraging African Americans and Hispanics interested in pursuing Ph.Ds in physics and astronomy,” he says. One of the ways to change that is to increase diversity of the faculty. “If someone is like you, you can more easily imagine being in that person’s shoes.”


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2011 Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action and Diversity Awards

In his capacity as both Chair and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Robert Continetti has devoted major amounts of time, effort and intellect towards raising the level of diversity at UC San Diego.

He chaired the chancellor's diversity council from 2009 to 2011 and has served on the Campus Climate Council since its inception in 2010. Under his leadership the diversity council focused on recruitment of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as a disability and inclusion issues. The council expanded to include a wider range of stakeholders including organizations such as the Chicano/Latino Consilio, the Ujima Network and the American Indian Faculty and Staff Association. They also led the effort to amend the Principles of Community to explicitly include gender identity as a dimension of diversity.

Beyond these campus-wide efforts, Continetti has played a leadership role in advancing diversity in his role as Department Chair. During his five and half years as Chair, one-third of the tenure-track hires made have been women and underrepresented minorities in the fields of Chemistry and Biochemistry. This has been achieved by careful attention to best practices in broadening applicant pools. He has also established a committee within the Department to coordinate Diversity and Outreach efforts.

Christopher Smith, director for education, outreach and training at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, has provided learning and research opportunities to a diverse group of students.

Smith developed a seminar series for California State University, San Marcos, that features UC and community researchers and engineers. The talks also draw minority students to the center’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which supported more than 50 students last year, more than half of them underrepresented minorities and more than a third women.

Smith also created a course at Cal State San Marcos on biological physics that introduces undergraduates, a third of them underrepresented minorites, to the leading edge of this field while providing postdocs from the center, many of them underrepresented minorities themselves, the opportunity to hone their teaching skills.

Smith organizes annual training workshops that benefit scientists from both teaching and research institutions. By advertising the workshops through both traditional and non-traditional venues, he has gathered participants from the full spectrum of educational institutions.

Smith also found funding to develop program in a local school district that serves a significant under-represented minority population, recently received an award from the California School Boards Association.